Standing at the bus stop under the scanty shade of a hungry-looking mango tree, Debbie and Alice were chatting animatedly about yesterday’s events. It was one of those hot, muggy days that left the sweat trickling down those hard-to-reach places, when suddenly, there was a loud screech of brakes.
Everyone at the bus stop turned to have a look. A bus had come to a shuddering halt. It barely managed to avoid hitting an old man dragging a reluctant he-goat, causing a fat market woman with a large, sweaty face and a torn abada blouse to shake her fists at the bus–driver and his conductor, showing her sleeves, stained with large dark rings from her sweat. Her basket of pineapples shook precariously on her head as she rained curses on them.
“You no see dat ol’ papa? You no see am? Foolish man! Idiot”!
The passengers on the bus, pushed the conductor aside, pulled back the sliding bus door and hurriedly spilled out, looking shaken. There were about ten people standing and waiting for that particular bus. Rather than the usual rush to board before all the seats were taken up, there were hesitations; each had a quizzical look on their face but no one dared ask what happened except the fat woman who was still cursing, her fists dangerously close to the driver’s face.
“…Ah, madam, take am easy, na aksident…”
“…Driver, yu sef, you no dey luk wia yu dey go”?
… e be like say e drink…”
The people at the bus stop had found their voices; and so gradually, they boarded; Debbie and Alice were the last to get on.
“It was a cat”, someone whispered loudly from the back of the bus. “It just ran across the road like lightning. The driver barely managed to keep it from hitting it”.
“A black cat, Aluu! Abomination!” screeched another, shoulders raising and falling sharply with each word.
“How do you know, did you see it? After all no one mentioned the colour of the cat and anyway, we were all standing at the bus stop and…”
“…one of the passengers that came out mentioned it!”, snapped someone else. “Ah ah, I know what I’m talking about!”
“Ooo biko, don’t bite my head off, I was only…”
“I knew it, I just knew it! It’s an omen, Debbie; an omen”, said Alice in hushed tones, tuning out the other passengers voices.
“Remember, when we were leaving my house I stubbed my left big toe, and…”
“…and please don’t start”’, Debbie replied reproachfully. “Everything is an omen to you or a premonition or a sign…”
“… while everything to you, isn’t! You know something, Madam Debbie, sometimes you sound like an ‘ITK – I too know’!”
“And you Sister Alice sound, all the time,like the priestess of River Ndi-mmuọ.”
The bus arrived at the train station just as the 17:15 to Kaduna was pulling into the station.
“Chidebe, Alice!” shrieked several excited voices. “What took you guys so long?”
“Priestess Alice and her dreams and visions”.
“Debbie, they were no dreams or visions. I don’t know why you…”
“…Biko, Biko, pleeeease, this is not the time for your daily dose of arguments”, Nnenna cut in. “We have barely five minutes to get to the platform”.
They raced to the stairs, eight excited fifteen year-olds. Even Nnenna Haruna, the head girl, nicknamed ‘Ejuna’ – snail, on account of her slow-moving steps joined in the race. Nnenna was tall for her age and very skinny. Of Igbo and Hausa heritage, she had very unusual looks that made people stare at her just a little bit longer; people turned to look, not just at her, but this time at the excited group of girls racing up the stairs. Faces in the crowd smiling, a look of nostalgia here and there; memories of days gone by when they themselves would race like that shouting out ‘Last one is a coconut head!’
All eight raced on to the last stair, almost knocking over the ample ticketing officer who was standing at the top of the stairs, chatting to a tall, thin, bespectacled man clad in a tie and dye shirt and khaki trousers; his well-trimmed toenails peeping out of a pair of brown leather sandals. They came to an abrupt halt as the ticketing officer turned around with a disapproving look on her face.
“Eni wokhana! These children, eeh! They never…”
“Am I meant to understand that there is some sort of emergency, or is this some new form of entertainment that I am not aware of”? drawled a sonorous, melodious voice.
There was complete silence; no one spoke or moved a muscle. Even the air within the building appeared still as if in sympathy with the girls.
“Haruna, do you have anything to say to this?” The teachers never called you by your first name.
“Excuse me sir, It wasn’t Nnenna’s fault, we all ran up the…”
“…I wasn’t aware that you’ve now changed your name from Ọssai to Haruna”.
“No sir…I haven’t sir…I mean I’m sorry sir…”
“And you should be. Right everyone take their place behind the doughnut stand while we wait for the boys. Haruna, make sure everyone’s luggage is properly labelled and tagged. Miss Zaki should be along with the boys any moment from now.”
Debbie stole a look at the tall, thin frame of Mr Kabir, her Maths teacher and 4b’s Form tutor, from under her short but thick eyelashes that always appeared to an onlooker, to be obscuring her vision so that people instinctively tended to rub at their eyes while speaking or listening to her. He doesn’t seem to have any other clothes except tie and dye shirts, khaki and jeans and he’s always picking on me, she thought. He’s such a stickler for rules that you dare not even breathe the wrong way around him if you don’t want to get into trouble. She felt a quick pinch on the back of her upper arm; it was Alice.
“Just ignore him, don’t let him get to you. The day is too nice to let him spoil it”, she whispered furiously, quick to spot Debbie’s fingers beating a tattoo on her thigh- a sure sign that ‘her pot was about boiling over’.
Regardless of their incessant arguments and bickering, best friends Debbie and Alice, appeared to most people more like twins – not in looks, though but in the uncanny way they both sensed what the other one was feeling. While Alice was slight, with a flawless toffee complexion, Debbie was bigger-boned, a little bit taller than the average teenage girl, with skin the colour of sand-roasted groundnuts and plagued with a furious case of teenage acne across both high cheek-bones.
“Is that something for the whole group to share”?, Mr Kabir asked, looking at Alice from the top of his spectacles.
“No sir, I was just…”
“…Then I suggest you keep it to yourself”
“Yes sir”!, Alice muttered darkly, miming a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute. There were a few snickers and giggles but as Mr Kabir was about to reprimand the culprits, another loud noise in the direction of the stairs took his attention; a group of twelve boys were coming up, pulling and dragging suitcases and holdalls of different shapes, sizes and colours.
Miss Zaki came up at the rear. Petite and almond-eyed with flawless caramel-coloured skin, she looked more like a model for Cocoa or Shea butter than a Physics teacher. The students nicknamed her ‘Zaccheus’ after the man who climbed up the sycamore tree to see Jesus because ‘…he was of little stature…’and it didn’t help either that her named sounded like a diminutive of the same. Miss Zaki always had her hair braided in intricate inverted braids a là Fulani style. Eyes lined with tiro, sporting a twinkle in them, a smile always playing around her lips, Miss Zaki’s looks belied a core of steel at the centre of a straight, unbending spine.
Cyril Udoka, one of the victims of that ‘spine’, had recently moved from Lagos to Enugu. Lagos was the nation’s capital in every sense of the word. It boasted of an international presence and facilities no other city in the nation had. This spilled over into the way most Lagosians in school saw themselves- as the centre of the nation – and Cyril was no exception. Matters weren’t helped by his having won the annual ‘Mr Kool’ competition, twice in row. He so was convinced that he could wriggle his way out of any teacher’s grasp that he handed in an incomplete Physics paper as part of the half-term assessment;after all, he was ‘Mr Kool’ and one of the brightest students in his set even though he relied more on his boyish charm than his brains. Besides, hadn’t he been able to ‘miss’ Mrs Akinola’s test for that dancing competition in Bakori and did anything come out of it? When he found out that for skipping his Physics test without any concrete reason, he would have to cut the slightly overgrown weeds round the Physics laboratory in the burning sun, with the whole of Form 4a – f looking on, admirers and detractors included, suddenly, he didn’t feel so ‘Kool’ after all.
Mrs Zaki was what the students called ‘small but mighty’; Cyril had just found out the hard way; he swore never to be in her bad books again, ever.
“Right, are we all here”?, asked Mr Kabir.
“Yes sir”!, twenty voices, some deep, some shrill, replied.
“Okay, Miss Zaki, can I have you do a final head count before we board the reserved coach”, please?’.
‘Nnenna Haruna, Chidebe Ọssai, Alice Isiọma, Kikelọmọ Ibidapọ…”, Miss Zaki reeled off names from the register in front of her.
Replies of ‘present Miss’ filled the air while the students took their places beside Mr Kabir as their names were being called out; they knew the drill – no talking, no fidgeting and definitely no crooked lines. Finally, it was time to board the train. Everyone’s luggage had been checked, a final head count taken as they got on the reserved coach. Each one settled down after a mad scramble to sit beside best friends. There was one final long blast of the train’s whistle and they were off.
“This is the bit I really like, when the train picks up speed”, Debbie whispered excitedly to Alice, still conscious of Mr Kabir’s eyes, scanning the coach for those he labelled ‘troublemakers’ i.e. those who twitch a lot and don’t sit still’.
“How he expects us to sit still for the whole twelve hours this journey takes is still a mystery to me”, she snorted.
There was no reply from beside her. Alice can’t have fallen asleep so soon, she thought, that would be record time. She turned to her right where Alice was nervously chewing her index fingernail and stealing fearful glances out of the window as the train sped past. Debbie knew that habit and that look; she had seen it this morning as they boarded the bus that brought them to the station.
“What now”!?, she snapped, angry at her mood being spoiled by another of Alice’s superstitions. “Abi you dey see ghost for dia”?
“Look, Debbie, I know you don’t believe in my premonitions, but I stubbed my left big toe as we were leaving my house this morning remember and I know that isn’t a good omen, it is not a good omen at aaalll”, she dragged out the one-syllable word as much as she could. “Also, you remember the black cat that ran across the bus that brought us to the station…”
“…It was not a black cat!”, Debbie snapped in exasperation.
“How do you know it wasn’t”?
“How do you know it was? None of us saw the cat, we just heard someone say so on the bus; besides, I’ve told you these your premonition wahala would get you nowhere…you’re still too young…”
“…And you, you’re Methuselah! Abeg, leave me jọ. If you like believe it; if you like don’t.”
“You two at it again’, sighed Nnenna. ‘Una no dey ever tire to quarrel”?
A grunt from Mr Kabir’s direction ensured that that question was never answered. Debbie held her breath expecting a sharp reprimand. Wonder of wonders! It never came. Gradually everyone quietened down and all that could be heard was the clackety-clack of the wheels of the train on the track and the sound of the train’s whistle when it approached a crossing.
A few hours later, a loud scream from the back of the coach smashed the tranquillity of the coach. In a flash, Mr Kabir and Miss Zaki were standing over a frightened Audu who was staring wide-eyed at the door of the toilet, flat on his back. Laraba, the sports prefect, a strong, stout, fearless girl, light-skinned with a scattering of freckles on her nose was pointing with a shaky finger in the same direction, screaming continuously. Miss Zaki, reached up, placed her hands on Laraba’s shoulders and tried to calm her down. By this time, all twenty teenagers were awake, some standing on their seats and others, peering over each other’s shoulders, trying to see what the fuss was about.
“Chidebe ‘Debbie’ Ọssai, did I not tell you it was an omen”?, Alice turned on Debbie accusingly, “ did I not tell you?”.
“Priestess of Agbala, Alice Isiọma may your reign be long”! Debbie replied, bowing sarcastically. “We don’t even know what the wahala is about and there you are going on about omen or no omen”.
A collective gasp ensured that the impending bicker ended there. Debbie and Alice turned to look. Mr Kabir was dragging someone out of the toilet. He was dressed in the garb of a cattle-rearer with long, flowing robes, a home-made shepherd’s crook and feet shod with ‘motor-foot’ – rough sandals made with pieces of car tyre. Mr Kabir managed to drag him out to the middle of the coach when Cyril, Audu (who by now had come out of his frozen and fallen state) and Emeka grabbed a couple of hockey sticks from the sports bag stashed away in the overhead rack…
‘Tsaya!!!’ shouted Mr Kabir.
Another collective gasp and a suppressed scream from somewhere in the group; Mr Kabir never shouted. This is a first, thought Debbie. In fact there seemed to be a lot of firsts. Laraba was scared of nothing and no one; indeed she was nicknamed ‘Lioness’ on account of her fearlessness. She was also a formidable hockey player and had played for the state during last year’s inter-state championship. There were even rumours that she beat up Obinna ‘the beast’ Ikeogu, one of the most feared boys in the school, during sports practice, just before the championships; however, no one seemed to want to talk about it especially the boys- something to do with keeping Obinna’s pride and reputation intact. And then there was the shout from Mr Kabir. Not only did he never shout, he never, ever spoke anything else other than English, not even Pidgin.
Principal Odion’s favourite saying was, ‘A breach of school rules is a breach of common sense’ and Mr Kabir took it literally; it was against the school rules to speak the indigenous languages because Principal Odion was convinced it created tribalism and segregation; English was the official language and that was that. While other teachers would and did indulge in the occasional ‘breach of common sense’, Mr Kabir stuck judiciously to English. The only thing that gave away his origins was not even his name which was Arabic in origin, but the tribal marks on his left cheek; the Gwaris of the north were the only ones with those distinguishing marks.
So who was this that got a shout out of Mr Kabir? Maybe Alice’s premonitions are not as far-fetched as they seem, Debbie concluded.
“Can we all move back and sit down quietly while Mr Kabir and I try and get to the bottom of all this without breathing in your fumes”, Miss Zaki said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
“Udoka, Audu and Okafor”, (the teachers always called you by your surname trouble or no trouble) she stood between the three best friends, “I know you’re known as the three musketeers, but right now, I need you to put your weapons down”
The nervous air about her belied her calm voice. She kept looking at the man on the floor and then at Mr Kabir and back again. The man kept wringing his hands as if to pull his wrists out of their sockets. Slowly, the boys lowered the hockey sticks on the floor, ready to pick them up at the slightest notice. The rest shuffled back a few steps with the exception of Alice, who remained rooted at her spot, whispering repeatedly to Debbie and Nnenna standing nearby,
“It’s an omen. I said it. It’s an omen!”
Everyone waited with bated breath to see what Mr Kabir would do. Even the man on the floor had stopped wringing his hands and pulling at his wrists.
“Ɗan’uwa, what are you doing here”? Mr Kabir asked in a tired, defeated voice.
There was a stirring from Laraba, Audu and all the others who understood Hausa; the rest looked on in confusion.
“Ɗan’uwa, he’s your brother”?, asked Miss Zaki, looking bewildered. “What is he doing here… I mean why is he dressed…”?
“…He’s not just my brother, he is my twin”.